In August 2014, the country’s focus shifted to Ferguson, Missouri. Headlines plastered with protest phrases like “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” and “I Can’t Breathe” left much of America feeling confused by the phrase “Black Lives Matter.” 

One of my colleagues whispered to me about the protest happening in Union Square that week, and an email circulated with more details among my black co-workers. Soon after, my supervisor asked me if I had seen what was going on in Missouri. I said yes, and she looked at me questioningly because my reply didn’t satisfy her curiosity. When she mentioned the viral photo of students from my alma mater with their hands up, I responded reluctantly, “Yes, it went viral.” My one-word answers were a result of discomfort; I didn’t want to have an open dialogue about race with my supervisor for fear that she would say something to anger me beyond repair. However, my lack of engagement only egged her on and resulted in an uncomfortable conversation for both parties. “Why are people so angry?” she asked. “Why are people saying that Black Lives Matter? Don’t we all matter?” I paused, trying to find a way to explain the events of Mike Brown’s death and why it caused such an uproar in society. My co-worker decided to save the day by providing her own explanation before I could say anything. Although I wasn’t pleased with how she explained it,I was relieved that I didn’t have to do so myself – especially not to my supervisor. Later, my supervisor mentioned it to the CEO. The CEO said, “Yeah, it’s just like that case in Florida. I mean, the cop was just trying to…” But I didn’t want to listen to anymore of what he had to say on the subject so I hurried off to the bathroom.

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I was having difficulty comprehending what took place in Ferguson, NY, and other parts of the USA. As a black American, I know firsthand how it feels to work in an environment where you can’t be yourself or voice your thoughts honestly. With racial tensions at an all-time high now, there are many people seeking answers and wanting their voices heard—all they want is for their lives to matter.

I wish I could go back to that day and fix it. If only I knew how to handle the situation better so that I could express what was happening in America to two people who seemed blissfully unaware. Maybe we would have learned something from each other if things had gone differently. With more and more cases of racial injustice in the news, it can be difficult to know how to approach conversations about race at work. I spoke with two activists who shared their tips for dealing with these sensitive topics:

Hameed and Hall, both 26 years old, created Eternal Life Project in 2010 as a means of developing youth while also teaching others about the stories of those who have died because of violence. This organization was established by Hameed after the police officer who shot Oscar Grant went without being charged for his crime. The two women came together again to lead a tele-town hall meeting that would address how people can protect themselves from police brutality and heal from such experiences.

1. Find ways to decompress. 

It’s tough to stay concentrated on work when heartbreaking news stories keep appearing as notifications on our devices. We all have responsibilities, but it’s impossible to ignore that we’re also feeling creatures who are affected by the world around us. If you find yourself struggling to focus after seeing a notification about another tragedy, know that you’re not alone. Says Hall: “When you’re at work, you should be focused on work. I take a walk, get some water, and find some other black people to see if they know what’s going on. I always remove myself from the workplace—literally and go and do something else so that I can reflect on what’s happening or distract myself to get my emotional state together. We have to draw lines between each space.” 

Hameed turns to her ancestors for strength and courage during difficult times. Reminding herself of their struggles helps her get through the tough times she faces today. “These situations are traumatic—every time someone is shot or unjustly incarcerated and has no chance of parole—and we experience them individually,” she says. “Do take a minute to recollect and reflect. It won’t stop us from excelling at our jobs, stop us from excelling academically, or in our businesses. Even though we continue to take hits as a community, we still have to stride forward. Take your moment and then recognize that even though we have these atrocities happening in our community, that it’s our duty in our community to keep pressing forward,” Hameed said.

Hall began working at the Aspen Institute a few months before Mike Brown was killed. “I listened in when verdicts and non indictments would come in and make headlines, so having to contain that frustration in an environment where there aren’t many people who look like me is quite challenging,” she says. “I never had to think about censoring myself [before I started post-graduate life]. It was very challenging to be in a space where so much was happening and I couldn’t necessarily put on an “I Can’t Breathe” t-shirt at work without knowing that people would ask me a number of questions or make assumptions about me.” 

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2. Be open-minded when asking about traumatic current events. 

If you want to understand your coworker’s opinion on the current climate of race relations in America, but feel hesitant about asking, the best way to approach the conversation is with an open mind and free of judgment.

A little research corresponds to fewer questions, according to Hameed. “Do the best you can to know the facts of what’s going on, and see what the perspectives of the stakeholders are at this time,” she explains. “If you want to learn more at that point, just say, ‘Hey, I’ve been doing a little research and I’ve been seeing what’s going on in the news related to police brutality and gun violence impacting African-Americans. I haven’t experienced this, so I want to understand your perspective on things. Would you mind sharing with me?’ I think it’s all about sharing cultures, sharing experiences, and gaining understanding. You can also take it a step further by asking how you can offer your support for the community.”

Hall believes that you cannot allow your bias to control the situation and overpower other people’s thoughts. “If you want to debate, you engage one way; and if you want to be informed, you ask another way,” she says. 

3. Turn ignorant remarks into teachable moments. 

Your coworker says something racist about Muslims. It’s inflammatory and exactly the kind of Islamophobic rhetoric that Hameed believes we should use as teachable moments:

“I think situations like these should be addressed, because there is always a teachable moment. Sometimes we have to step into the role as educators and be understanding of ignorance. Sometimes we have to decipher if it’s ignorance or a lack of passion and care to fellow humans. Don’t address it publicly, in an open space where other colleagues are around. Pull the person to the side and say, ‘Hey, I heard a remark that you made about this current event that is going on, and I want to talk to you about it. When you said this, this is how it made me feel because of XYZ. I know that this may not have been your experience, so I am willing to hear more about your experience and why you feel that way.’ Just bring it all together, in context, to a more real place for this person.”

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4. Find a work environment that respects who you are. 

It’s difficult enough to find a job, but it’s even harder to find one where you feel comfortable being yourself. Make sure the workplace is somewhere that allows you to express your beliefs and values freely.

“I never thought people would identify me as an activist, but it’s something that I wouldn’t shy away from,” says Hall. “Make sure the space that you are working in is understanding of who you are and, therefore, it wouldn’t be a surprise to your colleagues when they learn certain things about you; they will know how to engage and interact with you around those issues.” 

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